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Inverallochy, Week 9: 26 February

I was reading about Robert the Bruce the other day and came across something that stopped me in my tracks. No matter how much the narrative wanted to sweep me along I couldn’t get past it, like a sort of metaphysical flypaper for historians.

The story of Robert the Bruce is, of course, well known. In 1306, when Edward I seemed to have Scotland under his gauntleted thumb—no open opposition, all the Scots castles in the hands of English and Welsh soldiers, the royal insignia and the Stone of Destiny safely removed to England, the state archives (*sob*) at the bottom of the sea—Bruce raised the standard of rebellion. Defeated time and again, he spent a miserable winter in 1306-7 in hiding, was bitten by a radioactive spider which gave him superpowers, and returned to wage a ceaseless war against evildoers everywhere… No, wait, that’s not it.

Wick River

Well, joking aside, here’s the thing: in 1306, on the run, Bruce sent the women of his party away. The plan was that they would seek safety overseas, where they had kin. But they were caught at Tain (between Wick and Inverness) and handed over to Edward’s men. The men of the party were executed, Bruce’s wife Elizabeth was imprisoned and his daughter sent to a convent. But Isabella Macduff, countess of Buchan, was hung in a cage from the battlements of Berwick castle; and Bruce’s sister Mary was hung in a similar cage at Roxburgh. The cages were open to the air, “that both in life and after [their] death, [they] may be a spectacle and eternal reproach to travellers”.

The narrative of history tugs at my sleeve, wanting to move me on to Bruce’s incredible guerrilla campaign of 1307, all the way to the heady triumph of Bannockburn in 1314. But I keep thinking, No, wait, hang on a minute: what do you mean, a cage? The women hung there for four years—four years—before it occurred to Edward that they might be more useful as live hostages than as a dead reproach, and they were transferred to other quarters. Finally, after Bannockburn Mary and most of the others were ransomed; but Countess Isabella isn’t mentioned, and probably died in captivity.

And no matter how much Bannockburn resonates today (and stirs the blood in the unofficial national anthem, Flower of Scotland: “But we can still rise now/ And be the nation again/ That stood against him/ Proud Edward’s army/ And sent him homeward/ Tae think again”—take that, English rugby team!) I keep thinking of those poor women in their cages. In James Joyce’s Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus says that “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake”; and, you know, I think I’m starting to understand what he means.

Cliffs at Nybster

Meanwhile it’s milestone time in gansey land this week: I have finished the back, rig ‘n’ fur shoulder straps and all; and have made a start on the front. To give you an idea of scale, I’m currently halfway through my ninth ball of 100g yarn; and it’s not impossible that this will end up weighing more than Robert Bruce’s armour by the time I’ve finished…

[Editor’s Note: Margaret’s still away “dyne sythe”, so continued apologies for quality of images, formatting, and, well, everything really…]

4 comments to Inverallochy, Week 9: 26 February

  • Lois

    Beautiful! And the horizontal lines of the rig ‘n fur set off the vertical lines of the yoke to their advantage.

    Those poor women! In the grand sweep of historic battles, the misery incurred by those who paid the price is so often glossed over.

    • Gordon

      Hello Lois, sorry in the delay in getting back to you. Been one of those weeks (lives?).

      I agree that it’s often the innocent bystanders who suffer most. Though the men who were captured were hanged, drawn and quartered, not the nicest of deaths, I think we can just agree that history has a lot to answer for!

  • Jane Callaghan

    I hope everyone has noticed, and will stand and resist the English mutilation of ‘Flower of Scotland’ that sings ‘think’ on the wrong note.It goes down a whole grim and surly tone from ‘tae’, not a polite little garden-party semitone. Love the gansey, too

    • Gordon

      Hi Jane, I think the Welsh have the best national anthem, impossible not to hear unmoved. But Flower of Scotland comes a close second, a lovely tune that somehow symbolises Scotland in an intangible way. I love it deeply, and one day I hope to sing it at Murrayfield before and after a famous Scots victory!

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